I just caught the movie “Mr. Holmes,” which purports to be a story about the “real” Sherlock Holmes when he is in retirement. It has a wonderful cast, a beautiful production design, and sensitive direction by Bill Condon – and it’s a lugubrious piece of sentimental tripe. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of logic and the human mind, but “Mr. Holmes” is a stealth attack against these virtues. Camouflaged as an homage to a beloved pop-cultural icon, it actually turns Sherlock into the Tin Man, and then gives him a heart, while taking away his brain.
“Mr. Holmes” gives us no fiendishly clever crimes or charismatic villains. Instead we get two rather drab little domestic tragedies, and one rather drab little domestic drama. Set just after World War II, when Holmes is about 90 years old and slowly losing his mind to senile dementia, the movie slowly cycles through the following story lines:
- Sherlock slowly befriends the son of his housekeeper, and teaches him how to care for honeybees.
- Sherlock visits Japan in search of an herb that can cure senile dementia. His host is a fan of the “fictionalized” accounts of Sherlock’s cases that Dr. Watson wrote.
- Sherlock strives to remember his last case, some 20 or 30 years earlier. Something about it caused him to retire from detective work. He does indeed remember, and the case involved a young wife in despair after two miscarriages.
Let’s start with that last case. It arrives shortly after Watson has departed to begin married life, when Sherlock is hired by a frustrated young husband. The man’s wife talks to her dead babies, and might be visiting a music teacher/medium who encourages that sort of thing. The intolerant young husband wants that to stop, of course. Sherlock discovers that the wife is not visiting the suspect teacher, but is rather planning her own suicide. He and the wife have one meeting, and one conversation. He tells her he knows what she intends to do. She responds with something like a marriage proposal, in which two lonely people can share – something. He gently declines, and though she seems to reject suicide and pours out the poison she has in her purse, she soon after throws herself in front of a speeding train. This causes Sherlock to sink into a depressive guilt so profound he retires and moves to the country. (!?!) Towards the end of the movie he comes to think he should have saved the poor woman by telling her some comforting lies. (?!?)
If you are gay, you’ve met, or know someone who has met, a guy who wants to move in and get married after one date. That’s a red flag, and the sensible course of action is retreat. But the addled mind of “Mr. Holmes” seems to believe that one good cry with a new acquaintance will solve the poor woman’s despair. It believes that Sherlock can merely pretend to accept her proposal, and save her without actually taking on the momentous responsibility that’s required. Need I say that this is bonkers? What’s more, the Sherlock Holmes I know would get this.
Onto drab domestic tragedy number two. The father of Sherlock’s Japanese host deserted the family some 20 years earlier. The man had been in England, and he had sent his son a copy of Dr. Watson’s stories about Sherlock. He also sent a letter that said after meeting with the real Sherlock, he had decided not to return to Japan. Now that he has the real Sherlock as a guest, the wounded man demands an explanation – and he gets the truth. Which is that Sherlock never met the man, and that the letter was the lie. As a tactless aside, Sherlock calls the father a coward. (Super smart people like Sherlock never have any tact, of course. They are too rational for it.) But once back in England, after his epiphany about lying to the despairing young wife, Sherlock writes his Japanese host a letter. In it he claims that he did indeed meet with the faithless father. He explains that the man had been volunteering for some sort of secret service to His Majesty’s Government, and thus unable to ever again see his family. (!?!) So at Sherlock’s suggestion he writes to tell them goodbye – without any real explanation. (!?!)
I am again non-plussed. Telling a Japanese man in 1946 that his father abandoned him for service to a foreign government would have been of dubious therapeutic value. So says I. For one, Japanese culture takes loyalty to the home team very seriously, and for two, it had just gone to war with Great Britain. Speaking of the war, guess where Sherlock and his young host search for that medicinal herb? Hiroshima! In fact, they dig up the precious plant within site of ground zero – no worries about radiation poisoning for them!
Why Hiroshima? I’m not sure, but I suspect the movie, and the book it is based on, want a cheap way to establish their moral seriousness. Hiroshima is an easy shorthand for “war is bad.” Yet the complicated history of that terrible tragedy is still a fraught subject, and “Mr. Holmes” does nothing at all to address it. Instead, we get a quick scene where Sherlock reacts in naive dismay to the sight of some radiation burns. Again, who is this man? Sherlock would have lived in England through two long, bitter, hard-fought world wars. I cannot believe this is the first time he would have come face to face with the ghastly damage they inflicted. And here’s another point – if Sherlock is kind-hearted enough to gasp at the wounds of a stranger, how come he brutally calls his host’s father a coward?
I won’t go into Sherlock’s friendship with the young son of his housekeeper, because while it is pleasant, it is pointless. Nor will I talk about the bee keeping, because I don’t know what the hell that was all about. Rather, I’ll zip forward to the final image, where Sherlock makes a little stone funeral arrangement to dead friends and relatives and starts praying over it – for now that he is approaching death and slowly losing his mind, now that he has humbly understood the importance of feelings over facts, he finally appreciates……God?
“Mr. Holmes” is based on the novel “A Slight Trick Of The Mind,” by Mitch Cullen. I have not read this book, but after I saw the movie I suspected the author was a conservative Catholic – what with the undead unborn babies, the trauma over suicide, and the faith in the healing power of lies. Turns out I was wrong, because on a Facebook post where he (justly) rants against Kim Davis, Cullen says he isn’t a Christian. But he is an American, so perhaps his distrust of logical intelligence is merely cultural, and not religious. I also discovered that he and his partner (maybe husband) Peter I. Chang live part-time in Tokyo. This explains the mysterious inclusion of a Japan story line. Alas, it does not justify it. Still, I wish Mitch and Peter a happy life together!